With all the news of late regarding emergency services in Ocean City and Berlin, it’s natural for the public to be concerned about their wellbeing.
Indeed, there are major political waves pounding the Ocean City Fire Department (OCFD) and the Berlin Fire Company (BFC). There are major allegations being hurled about both of these organizations. Through this paper’s internal investigations, some of the claims have been found to be legitimate, while some are bogus.
One of the common denominators in both of the situations in Ocean City and Berlin is a lot of the “turmoil”, as OC Fire Chief Chris Larmore put it last week,” is a result of infighting among the rank and file and the command staff over policy and personnel decisions. This is natural to a degree, as staff and management are not always going to be on the same page.
What is also known is there is a certain element of a locker room culture that pervades these two organizations. I believe that’s the case in every fire house across the country. What’s happening locally now, and it’s disturbing, is the dirty laundry is now being exposed for all to see and read about on what seems to be a daily basis.
In Berlin, the stalemate between the town and the BFC continues and it appears no resolution will be coming forward anytime soon. The BFC said this week it’s withholding the requested financial data until the town’s upcoming budget sessions. The town had asked for a financial picture of the BFC to be presented earlier this year. More than likely, there is something else at play here, and it probably has to do with the BFC wanting the entire Mayor and Council to see the documentation rather than giving the mayor and town administrator time to review it prior and craft a position.
Complicating things in Berlin is the legal case that apparently is going to head to one of the higher courts in Maryland. The wrongful termination suit by a long-time BFC employee and supervisor has been rejected twice at the local court level, but an appeal has been filed with a higher court. Berlin Mayor Gee Williams has intimidated further legal actions are coming in regards to the previous workplace harassment claims. How he knows that is unclear, but he said this week, “it is our understanding that the legal ramifications of the allegations of workplace harassment at the Berlin Fire House have only just begun.”
Over in Ocean City, a divided OCFD is at play. The chief feels confident 95% of his department is happy with current workplace conditions, and the recent allegations of hostility, retribution and poor management stem from a handful of veteran firefighter/paramedics who are struggling with changing times within the department. However, those who have vocalized their concerns to the media through a support group of wives say the current culture of questionable leadership, harassment, negativity and extreme stress has dominated the department since Larmore took over five years ago. Whatever the case, City Manager David Recor is worried enough about the allegations and the current uproar to meet individually with career personnel without management present.
The community should be concerned about what is happening in Ocean City and Berlin and the perceived nexus between the two agencies. However, what’s most important here is public safety. By my estimation, the personnel in Ocean City and Berlin deserve the benefit of the doubt that, while they may not be on the same page all the time and mistakes happen (i.e., the missed service call late last year in Ocean City), they understand their primary mission is to provide timely responses in the case of emergencies.
The good news is you do not have to take my word for it. I asked Reese Cropper, owner of Insurance Management Group in Ocean City, to update me this week on the area’s ISO ratings. For those who don’t know, ISO ratings involve fire protection services in communities across the country. Using a complex package of information, the Public Protection Classification program assesses the data collected during an investigation and rates the areas from 1 (best) to 10. Insurance companies use the rates to determine premiums for businesses and private households that we all have to pay.
Ocean City is currently classified at a an exceptional “3” and is of only seven designations in the state of Maryland currently. Additionally, almost all of West Ocean City, Berlin and Ocean Pines are classified as a “5”, which is the most common designation in Maryland.
What that means is the fire suppression infrastructure coupled with the manpower present to maintain fire and emergency safety in the area is in place at more than adequate levels. Include this fact with the knowledge that the individuals working in the firehouses in the area are among the most well-trained and qualified around, and there is good reason to feel safe, albeit discouraged by the current rankling within the local departments.
Safety is the most important aspect to keep in mind while all the controversy plays out on the pages of this newspaper and elsewhere. The current discourse is certainly ugly and there are no indications it’s going to get pretty any time soon, but a proper perspective is healthy for all to grasp during these tense times.